Ireland's Church experiencing dark before the dawn

Archbishop Charles Brown, an American who serves as the pope’s ambassador to Ireland, gave a stirring talk in late August at ceremonies closing a novena to Our Lady of Knock, one of the world’s major Marian shrines. 

The clerical sex abuse scandal has hit the Irish Church in a particularly devastating way. Dublin’s archbishop has reported that Sunday Mass attendance in some of his parishes is in the low single digit percentages. In addition to the financial and moral toll, the crisis has prompted an unprecedented level of outrage against the institution of the Church, leading to such measures as legislative attempts to require priests in some circumstances to violate the sacrosanct seal of confession. 

To say that the Church in Ireland today has a morale problem is a major understatement. 

Archbishop Brown acknowledged as much, but held out the example of the extraordinary resurgence of the Church in Ireland after the Knock apparitions in 1879, when the country was in dire straits — the population had plummeted by 25 percent because of emigration and the deaths caused by famine. 

“The times in which Mary appeared here in Knock were very bad, and yet it bears noting that the century which followed the apparition would be marked by an extraordinary flourishing of the Catholic Church in Ireland, with huge numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life and a deep Christianization of all aspects of society. Such a flourishing would have seemed impossible in 1879,” Archbishop Brown said. “But the night is often darkest before the dawn.” 

That last sentence is an old Irish saying (though ironically its earliest written form has been traced to a 17th-century English theologian) that is still much used. A famous song by the Irish band U2, “Yahweh,” also makes an allusion to the “dark before the dawn.” 

What does it take to find hope even in the darkest hours? For the Christian, it means making that monumental act of self-abandonment to God’s providence, certain of his love and confident that what he wants is our greatest spiritual fulfillment and happiness. 

Archbishop Brown cited the Gospel of Matthew: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well” (6:33). 

The archbishop also drew attention to a number of recent hopeful signs: the International Eucharistic Congress, which he said broke all attendance expectations and may have marked a “turning point” for the Irish Church; but he also cited smaller gatherings he had witnessed, like a priest’s ordination in a rural church, the traditional pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick, and a youth gathering with Eucharistic adoration, confession and the Rosary. 

“That, my brothers and sisters,” he said, “is the future of the Church in Ireland.